There have been countless Santa sightings around downtown Detroit in the recent weeks, including the jolly old elf’s numerous visits to the Compuware Building near Campus Martius. But we uncovered the true identity of one big-hearted “secret Santa” who loves to volunteer and help families in need. For the second year now, Matthew Rizik, chief tax guy for the Rock Ventures Family of Companies, has donned a white wig, a long beard and a Santa suit (plus a little extra stuffing) to greet homeless women and children at the annual Christmas for the Homeless Celebration sponsored by the Rhonda Walker Foundation. The nonprofit organization, founded by WDIV-TV news anchor Rhonda Walker, has the mission of empowering inner-city teenage girls. The 40 teens who take part in the foundation’s five-year “Girls into Women” program are among the volunteers (aka Santa’s helpers) at the event.
“It’s a valuable learning experience,” Walker explains. “Participating in this event teaches them about choices in life and the path where your choices can lead you. They also learn the beauty of community service, giving back and helping others.”
This year’s 12th annual Christmas party took place December 14 at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries’ banquet hall on Forest Avenue on the city’s east side. The guests of honor included 45 women and 30 children currently living at Genesis House II homeless shelter on Chicago Street. The single-parent families would not otherwise be able to purchase gifts or enjoy this type of celebration.
“When Rhonda asked me to do this last year, I went and got the Santa Claus outfit and it was so much fun,” Rizik explains. “It’s really amazing because the children see you as Santa. They come up and grab you around the neck, they hug you – this year one kid ran up and said, ‘I want to be your helper.’ It’s just a great feeling!”
In addition to Rizik, 60 more secret Santas (including members of the Bedrock Real Estate Services leadership team), donated toys and clothing for the children and gift baskets filled with toiletries and winter gear for the women. Participants were also treated to a holiday feast with all the trimmings, courtesy of Patrick Coleman and Beans & Cornbread restaurant in Southfield. But Rizik was undoubtedly the most popular and sought-after guest in the room.
“Santa’s the symbol, especially for children, of Christmas,” Walker said. “It’s awesome to see this executive put on a Santa suit and say, ‘Ho, ho, ho!’ He believes in giving back and helping others and helping make the day special for the kids. He’s an awesome Santa!”
“You really don’t appreciate how good you have it until you meet some of these children,” Rizik added. “I asked one 8-year-old girl, ‘What’s your special wish this year?’ and she leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘I wish my mom would be cancer free.’ In addition to all of the other things this girl is going through, her mom has cancer. To be able to give her and the other children a carefree day like this really means a lot.”
Walker started her foundation after visiting a Detroit school in 2003 and meeting a young girl who told her no one in her family encourages her. She created a personal development and mentoring program that’s helped change countless lives. Through the Rhonda Walker Foundation, hundreds of inner-city teenage girls have built their self-esteem and developed critical skills, which have translated into success in high school and beyond. Workshops, seminars and retreats focus on career and cultural development, health and wellness, and education. The teens are also paired with mentors. At the Christmas party, they help serve food to the families, fill gift bags, make crafts and play with the children.
“(It was an) Incredible day of bringing the joy of Christmas to the homeless,” Walker wrote on her Facebook page following the celebration. “Many thanks to my Rhonda Walker Foundation family and friends for making this day so joyous and awesome for the homeless women and children at the shelter, check out their big smiles!”
At the center of it all, smiling along with them, was Rock Ventures’ own Rizik in his Santa gear. The tax-guy-turned-Santa says there’s no place else he’d rather be. He plans to suit up again and help spread holiday cheer at the Christmas for the Homeless Celebration next year – and for years to come.
Click here to learn more about the Rhonda Walker Foundation, or to become a mentor, donor or volunteer.